Colleen Carroll Campbell – the author, journalist, television host and former presidential speechwriter – speaks candidly about her work , and her observations on Catholic life in this exclusive REGINA interview.
It seems that your discovery of the saints was critical to helping you find your way forward. Is this true? How so?
Yes, getting to know these six women saints was a crucial part of my spiritual journey, which is why I interwove their stories with my own in My Sisters the Saints. Although I did not initially expect to connect in such a profound way with these women – some of whom had lived centuries, even millennia, before me – I found that their lives and writings spoke to me in surprisingly relevant ways. They echoed my own deepest longings, helped me navigate my toughest trials and led me to rethink nearly everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a liberated woman. So there was really no way to separate their stories from my own, because their stories had so powerfully shaped my own.
The six saints whose stories I interweave with my own in My Sisters the Saints are Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein of Germany, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mary of Nazareth.
A quick summary: Teresa of Avila and her tale of a struggle to overcome worldliness and status-seeking spoke to me during my frenetic college years and jump-started my spiritual quest. Thérèse of Lisieux helped me grapple with my father’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease, a trial she knew from her own father’s descent into dementia. Faustina of Poland guided me as I struggled to choose between continuing my work as a presidential speechwriter in the White House and marrying a man who was smack in the middle of medical school 800 miles away. Edith Stein offered me insight and consolation in the midst of my battle with infertility. Mother Teresa did the same at a time in my life when I was feeling some of the same abandonment by God that she had described so eloquently in her recently revealed private writings. And Mary, the Mother of God, was with me all along, but in a special way in my quest for motherhood.
‘Faustina of Poland guided me as I struggled to choose between continuing my work as a presidential speechwriter in the White House and marrying a man who was smack in the middle of medical school 800 miles away.’
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing women of your generation today? What dangers are they facing? Many observers point to the impact of feminism and materialism on America women and therefore on the family. How would you characterize that impact on your generation?
I certainly wouldn’t presume to speak for an entire generation, and I think the answers to these questions largely depend on how and by whom one was raised. But I do think it’s true that young Americans today – regardless of what sort of families they come from – are growing up in a culture that does its best to distract them from asking life’s most important questions or finding satisfying answers to those questions. Even young Catholics raised by committed Catholic parents, as I was, face a barrage of messages from the wider culture that undermine the messages the Church is sending.
For young women, the cultural messages are particularly pernicious: Life is all about how you look and who’s looking at you; the only success that matters is the kind that can be quantified and flaunted; heeding your inner longings for committed love or the chance to give of yourself generously in family life is a path to oppression.
Such distortions often leave women ill-prepared to seek or find lasting happiness. Women in my generation enjoy more opportunities to participate in public life than ever before, and that’s something for which we should be grateful. But too often, our interior lives are not nurtured as they should be, and even women of faith find ourselves caught in the same traps of status-seeking, people-pleasing and me-first pleasure-chasing as everyone else.
The women saints and their stories offer a powerful antidote to this. The saints achieved their fulfillment by giving their lives away. They found themselves by seeking more than self. The way I see it, the women saints – not today’s pop culture heroines or secular feminist activists – are the real radicals. They are the role models we ought to be imitating.
‘Even women of faith find themselves caught in the same traps of status-seeking, people-pleasing and me-first pleasure-chasing as everyone else.’
Your generation has also seen a rather startling rise in vocations to religious orders that are loyal to the Magisterium and traditional in their approach. Can you comment on what you think is driving this trend in the face of such overwhelming counter-trends?
For my first book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola 2002), I spent a year traveling across America interviewing hundreds of young adults. The reasons for their conversions – or, in many cases, their “reversions” to the Catholic faith of their childhood – are manifold and detailed in that book. But if I had to sum those up in a sentence, I might simply quote St. Paul: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” (Romans 5:20)
The chaos and confusion of the past four decades – both in our increasingly secularized culture and even in corners of the Church that were overly influenced by that culture– led many young adults to search for something more satisfying and substantial than the theological vapidity or secular materialism of their youth. Their natural human yearning for God, combined with their natural youthful idealism, led them on a genuine search for truth. And that search led them to embrace a robust, demanding and orthodox Christian faith that is, in its orthodoxy, decidedly countercultural.
It seems that most people no longer have any personal relationship to the saints, as they weren’t taught about them in the post Vatican II vacuum. Do you see any signs that others like you have discovered the saints?
Yes, I see many signs of a revival of interest in the saints even among non-Catholics, and I think it makes a lot of sense. Christianity is an incarnational religion. We believe that God became man in a specific town, on a specific day, in the womb of a specific woman. So the personal and specific matters in Christianity, and the personal stories of Christ’s followers matter, too. Each life testifies to some unique aspect of God’s love; each human person bears God’s image in a unique way. Getting to know the saints allows us to get to know Jesus in a new way, to see his qualities magnified through a new lens or situated in a new historical context. When we’re striving for holiness and intimacy with God, it helps to look to the saints – to see men and women who ran the race and finished well.
“The culture tells us that life is all about how you look and who’s looking at you; the only success that matters is the kind that can be quantified and flaunted – and heeding your inner longings for committed love or the chance to give of yourself generously in family life is a path to oppression.”
Colleen Carroll Campbell writes on religion, politics, culture and women’s issues for such national outlets as The New York Times, Washington Post, National Review Online and First Things, comments about them on such networks as FOX News, CNN, PBS and NPR, and discusses them as host of “Faith & Culture,” a weekly television and radio show that airs internationally on EWTN, the world’s largest religious network. A former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Campbell speaks to audiences across America. Her newest book, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, was published by the Image imprint of Random House in October 2012. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.